Back in September 2020, then-Attorney General Bill Barr stopped by the office of a local columnist while on a trip to Chicago.
He came with a warning about the coming election.
“They are creating an incendiary situation where there’s going to be loss of confidence in the vote, it’ll be a close vote,” Barr told Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, referring to Democrats. “People will say ‘The President won Nevada — oh, wait a minute! We just discovered a hundred thousand ballots, every vote must be counted!’”
It’s a prediction that closely hews to the Big Lie that Trump and his lickspittles helped propagate after the November election. In a recent, lengthy interview with The Atlantic, Barr proclaimed that he resigned in December 2020 because he had “had enough.” Barr used the opportunity to portray his conduct as an attempt to constrain a rogue Trump, calling allegations that the election was stolen “bullshit.”
But a close look at Barr’s behavior pre and post election shows that the former attorney general was willing to help Trump sow distrust in the election up until the very last minute.
This overlooks the myriad other ways that Barr used the powers of the Justice Department to contain the political fallout from investigations into Trump and his associates. On elections alone, Barr repeatedly undertook actions that damaged confidence in the fairness of the vote as Trump demanded that the DOJ work to flip the result in his favor.
As early as June 2020, Barr was discouraging Americans from voting by mail. As the pandemic wore on throughout the year, many states expanded their vote-by-mail options a to make it easier for people to cast their ballots without risking exposure to the virus.
This provoked ire from Trump, who described it as “ballot harvesting.”
Barr followed up, explaining Trump’s concern by citing a wild and unfounded theory that shadowy foreign actors could falsify ballots en masse and send them in by mail.
“We’ve been talking about how, in terms of foreign influence, there are a number of foreign countries that could easily make counterfeit ballots, put names on them, send them in,” Barr told the New York Times last year. “And it’d be very hard to sort out what’s happening.”
That theory was swiftly dismissed by elections experts, TPM reported at the time.
But it ended up being a preview of Barr’s behavior from June 2020 until he told an Associated Press reporter on Dec. 1, 2020 that the Justice Department had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
Look at the case of nine ballots in Pennsylvania in September 2020.
Out of nowhere, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued a press release saying that it was examining “potential issues” with a “small number” of military ballots that had been “discarded.”
That raised flags for a number of reasons, including that the DOJ was releasing select details of an inquiry before any charges were brought. After a bizarre flurry of letters between the local election board and federal prosecutors, the state’s elections chief affirmed what had been suspected from the beginning: it was a mistake, not fraud.
But in that case, the damage was already done: a narrative that electoral fraud was going on in Pennsylvania had taken root, abetted by the DOJ.
After the election, it got more explicit.
Major networks and publications called the election in Biden’s favor on Nov. 7 — kicking Trump months-long campaign to overturn the results into its next phase. THe President and his closest allies begin pushing the myth that the election had been stolen, stranding his most fervent supporters in a world where Biden was illegitimate.
As that took place, Barr also got to work. He rescinded a longstanding DOJ policy that prohibited overt steps by prosecutors before elections were decided, and issued a memo authorizing federal prosecutors to investigate electoral fraud before the the safe harbor deadline.
This, too, ratified the falsehood that there were credible allegations of wrongdoing in the election — severe enough problems, apparently, to warrant unusual steps — while threatening to put the DOJ at the center of electoral disputes.
“I authorize you to pursue substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities prior to the certification of elections in your jurisdictions in certain cases, as I have already done in specific instances,” Barr wrote in the memo.
The DOJ never ended up conducting formal, criminal investigations — Barr said that he embarked on an “informal review” of the allegations, and dressed up his behavior as being the product of a simple desire to expose the truth.
Barr said that he undertook these acts — which had the effect of dealing irreparable damage to public confidence in the election — to give himself something to point to when Trump pressured him. Barr’s interlocutor, Jonathan Karl, wrote:
… Barr told me he had already concluded that it was highly unlikely that evidence existed that would tip the scales in the election. He had expected Trump to lose and therefore was not surprised by the outcome. He also knew that at some point, Trump was going to confront him about the allegations, and he wanted to be able to say that he had looked into them and that they were unfounded. So, in addition to giving prosecutors approval to open investigations into clear and credible allegations of substantial fraud, Barr began his own, unofficial inquiry into the major claims that the president and his allies were making.
“My attitude was: It was put-up or shut-up time,” Barr told The Atlantic. “If there was evidence of fraud, I had no motive to suppress it.”
But for Barr, the “put-up or shut-up time” came not when Trump pressured him, but after he told the AP that the Justice Department had found no evidence of fraud big enough to swing the result.
Even that was hedged, as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent pointed out, to suggest that there may still have been fraud in the election — just not enough to invalidate Biden’s victory.
But Barr admitted that in spite of his own feelings, the boss’s orders were more important.
“But my suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there,” he added. “It was all bullshit.”